Apr 29, 2021

‘Wuhan Wuhan’: Documentary Film Review

After all the accusations, conspiracy theories and general misinformation regarding the origins of the coronavirus in China, the sensitive, humanistic Wuhan Wuhan does a fine job depoliticizing the topic. 

Image Courtesy: Starlight Media

The documentary shows how the Chinese response to the virus outbreak was very similar to those in hospitals around the world, though its interest for viewers, perhaps, lies in ferreting out some of the minor differences. Directed by Yung Chang, a Chinese Canadian who is well known on the festival circuit for films like Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight, and produced by a team that includes Donna Gigliotti, the film is bowing at Hot Docs, where its topicality is bound to stir interest, even though its uncontroversial approach can only take it so far.

The eerily deserted streets and highways of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, set the scene for a series of character sketches that are interlaced throughout the film. The time is February 2020, “two months into lockdown.” Yung Chang and his video crew appear to have had special access to the city’s residents and hospitals at the height of the outbreak, bringing to life a lot of the anecdotal evidence we have seen in news reports. Ignoring the question of whether the virus originated in Wuhan’s wet markets, he focuses on how local medical personnel and selfless volunteers from other provinces came together for a mission as heroic as it is deadly.

Those who have followed the COVID-19 news in this life-changing year — and who hasn’t? — will recognize how utterly typical the hospital scenes are, paralleling similar scenarios from San Francisco to Milan. There are doctors and nurses scrambling for PPE who disappear behind hazmat suits, masks and goggles and write their names and pin pictures of themselves to their chests so the patients can recognize them. There is a former convention center converted into a 2,000-bed “Fangcang” field hospital filled with real, suffering patients whose faces are not blurred out. And there are flowers and prayers on the pavement outside for Dr. Li Wenliang, the medic whose early warnings about the deadly virus were hushed up by the Chinese government until matters were out of control. But this salute to the courageous doctor is a blip in an upbeat doc determined to avoid all manner of controversy.

The most engaging of several personal stories is that of a young couple of out-of-towners, Yin and his nervous wife Xu. She is very pregnant and very fretful, worried about Yin’s job as a volunteer driver ferrying medical personnel to hospitals. (We are worried about how she is ever going to deliver the baby. But she does, in a scene of startling candor.) Although Yin wears full PPE and has no direct contact with his riders in the back seat, the risk he runs is evident. A small crisis arises when he has to hunt for a baby crib and can’t find one. Small stuff, maybe, but it comes across as genuine.

Other characters are too briefly delineated to care much about. A mother and her son count the days until they can go home from the huge field hospital. A stern psychologist is shown offering emotional support to traumatized COVID patients, while back home her own father is dying of cancer. An ER chief and a nurse staying in a special hotel talk to their families every night on video calls; they look like they could use counseling, too. The drama of these situations is never pushed to tragic lengths, making for far fewer tears than some TV news reports provoke.

Without sensationalism, Wuhan Wuhan makes its quiet mark through its natural approach to a culture where people appear not to rebel against the strict government lockdown. On the contrary, the heroism of volunteers like factory worker Yin, who insists he drives long hours in a hazmat suit to stave off boredom, seems motivated by a concern for the collective that far exceeds Western values. The film makes you weigh and ponder such things.

Though it was shot by a team of videographers, the production quality is evident, particularly in the interludes of Yin driving around the vast city of linked highways, past the startling architecture of endless apartment blocks and other snapshots of city life. The Wuhan-based rock band Hualun adds a great deal with its unpredictable modern soundtrack mixed at low volume, which guides without getting in the way.

Production companies: Starlight Media, in association with Kartemquin Films
Director-screenwriter: Yung Chang
Producers: Donna Gigliotti, Peter Luo, Diane Quon
Executive producers: Donnie Yen, Cheng Yang, Yuki Zhang
Editor: Evita Yuepu Zhou, Zimo Huang
Music: Hualun
Venue: Hot Docs
World sales: 30West

90 minutes